Positive Mental Health – Get Out Into Nature

This week (10-16 May) is Mental Health Awareness Week and this years’ theme is ‘nature’. This theme is particularly close to my heart as I set up the OutdoorDadNI initiative to look at the connections between the outdoors and positive mental health.

After this year of multiple lockdowns, working from home, Zoom calls, home-schooling and toilet paper panic buying we need to be outside now more than ever. There has been a renewed focus on the power of nature and the outdoors over the past year and among many things recent research has shown: 

  • Time in nature – even 20 minute – can lower levels of cortisol which is a common stress marker.
  • Exposure to ‘green exercise’ can improve self-esteem and mood which are both indicators of mental health.
  • Walking in nature lowers blood pressure and the average heart rate. 
  • The outdoors can help strengthen the immune system, calm the mind & help restore focus. 
  • Even looking at a picture of nature or listening to a recording can have a positive effect on our mental health. 

With these positive benefits in mind I thought it might be useful to make a few of my own recommendations on how to best use the outdoors:  

Prescribe yourself some nature 

Doctors in the Shetland Islands have been prescribing ‘nature prescriptions‘ (birdwatching, rambling and beach walks in the Atlantic winds) since 2018 to patients to help treat mental illness, diabetes, heart disease, stress and other conditions. Also known as ‘green prescribing’, this involves the use of nature-based activities for improving the physical and mental health of individuals. Common activities include walking and cycling in nature, conservation activities, horticulture and meditation. The UK government recently launched a multi million pound pilot project last year as it has recognised that “the COVID-19 pandemic has made many more of us aware of how much we value and rely on outdoor spaces to support our health and wellbeing.” For more inspiration on the benefits of the mountains and in particular their power to change lives, it’s well worth checking out the Mountains for the Mind initiative lead by Trail Magazine or a course at Tollymore outdoor centre. One thing to note is that researchers from the University of Exeter have recently found nature is associated with a number of benefits but only if people chose to visit these places themselves. So get self-prescribing!

Go on an Microadventure 

A micro adventure is “small and achievable, for normal people with real lives”.  The concept was made popular by the author and adventurer Alastair Humphreys through his excellent book focusing on discovering local great escapes.  It’s full of ideas on how to get outdoors quickly, safely and easily. The outdoor company Alpkit now even have a ‘Microadventure Bivvy Bundle’ to get you started. 

Get on, in or near the water 

Coastal environments have been shown to improve our health, body and mind. There is something special about being out on or in the water. There has been a huge growth in open water swimming and cold water therapy through the Wim Hof method over the past year. For me personally, I recommend surfing, kayaking and especially getting on the water with a Stand Up Paddle (SUP) Board. It’s a great accessible way of getting on the water and there are plenty of excellent local organisations to help you get out safely: Far and Wild, SUP Hub NI, Strangford Lough Activity Centre, Active Adventures NI, Long Line Surf School to name only a few.

Try Forest Bathing

This one doesn’t need a wetsuit. Go out to your nearest forest (the Woodland Trust have a useful woodland finder) and try some Forest Bathing.  Otherwise known as Shinrin-Yoku, this practice originated in Japan in the 1980s following scientific studies by the Japanese government.  The research has shown that 2 hours of mindful exploration in a forest reduces blood pressure & lowers cortisol. Trees release phytoncides, which have an anti-microbial effect on human bodies, boosting the immune system.  Research from the University of Derby found that improving a person’s connection with nature through this form of ‘nature therapy’ led to significant increases in their wellbeing.

Start small

Getting inspired by nature isn’t just about climbing mountains or coasteering off cliffs (although both are fun!) you can also start small by; reading a good book by Robert McFarlaneTristan Gooley or poetry by Mary Oliver or by exploring the hidden spots in your local area on an OS Map or just try a local Parkrun when they come back. 

Have fun, layer up, buy good socks, enjoy the rain and try to laugh like a toddler in a puddle.

Enda Young is a Programme Director at the William J Clinton Leadership Institute at Queen’s University Belfast, a Trustee for Lighthouse suicide prevention charity and an Accredited Practitioner of the Institute for Outdoor Learning.  

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